Wrong-way corrigan rides again

Posted: Aug 09, 2001 12:00 AM
The teeth-gnashing on Monday when the news was out about Bill Clinton's advance was mostly by people who (a) didn't think Clinton should monetize the kind of thing that made him infamous, and (b) felt it was yet one more affront on the public that the price was probably right.

That last isn't a learned exploration of the economics of publishing; it's just a hunch. Publishing economics -- unlike what it is that brings the public to buy a book -- is not inscrutable. The author's royalty is 15 percent. If Clinton's book sells for $30, he makes $4.50 from every sale. Times a thousand, that's $4,500. Times 100,000, that's $450,000. So he'd have to sell 24 x 100,000 to earn the estimated $10 million advance.

Well, that's not going to happen, but great chunks can be got from foreign sales, magazines, book clubs, paperback editions. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. is stretching it, but they're rich, rich Germans who own it, and a sister publisher already paid $8 million for Hillary -- why not a little competition at the bookstore?

The extra-economic resentment has to do with a wobbly extension of the federal rule that you are not allowed to profit from a crime. The Army doctor who killed his pregnant wife and two children wrote a commercial book the proceeds from which were sequestered. But Bill didn't commit a crime, of the kind the good guys string you up for. What happened was that the good guys tried just that, and he got away with it, and for a couple of years continued popping about the world visiting kings and queens and prime ministers -- but let the incomparable Margaret Carlson tell it, as she does in Time magazine this week:

"How many times can the comeback kid come back? As many times as he needs to. Last week Bill Clinton emerged from his self-imposed post-pardon-scandal exile. ... It was full-frontal Clinton -- winking, mugging at the most mundane remarks, pointing excitedly into the crowd as if he had just spotted a long-lost friend or a donor. It was picture-perfect, a routine ribbon cutting turned into exuberant street carnival. Cable dropped its split-screen coverage of Clinton alongside the current president giving a speech, and went with full-screen coverage of an ex-president opening an office. The New York Times' headline the next day: 'A Hero's Welcome.'"

That's what makes Clinton's book worth Madonna-size money. Drab statesmen like Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover just didn't do the kind of thing that turns an office opening in Harlem into a jamboree. Mr. Clinton is deprived, according to Carlson: "Sure, it's hard to give up traffic control and Air Force One. But he makes himself a movable feast, providing sidewalk entertainment to a surprised group of rock fans waiting for the Dave Matthews Band in front of the Rihga Royal hotel. A frequent sight on the New York-to-Washington shuttle, where the prevailing ethic is no eye contact, Clinton works the aisles until forced to take his seat."

A recent essay in The New Yorker did not mention Clinton's name but did talk about the conventions that Clinton so joyously violates. In modern urban life, "congestion is the expected condition of everything. There is an attitude, widely adopted, for coping with this condition. The attitude is: Other people don't exist."

The author, Louis Menand, gives examples: "Cars bunch up along the highway, maneuvering in and out of each other's lanes, without their drivers ever making eye contact. People chatter away on their cell phones in front of strangers as if they were alone in their kitchens." How strange these conventions for Clinton! "Americans now behave in public places the way New Yorkers have always behaved in the subway: They carefully keep one inch of space between themselves and all adjacent bodies, and stare blankly into the middle distance. ... The more crowded life gets, the more insulated people make themselves, as though they were traveling around in invisible SUVs."

Bill Clinton gives off the sparkle of an enduring American model, the guy who got away with it and is quite prepared to forgive those Americans who were party poops. He is our Wrong-Way Corrigan. He was the jaunty aviator who in 1938, against strict orders, flew singehanded his dream flight, New York to Dublin. Accosted on his return by outraged officials, he excused himself by saying visibility was bad and he thought he had been flying toward Los Angeles, not Dublin.

Deny somebody like that public acclaim? No, give him a wad of money and wave at all those solipsists in the streets and in crowded airplanes. It's a great life!